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New-era writers transcend town literature tradition

DING QI | 2020-07-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Shuochang is a traditional Chinese art form that has been around for centuries and widely popular among ordinary people. Simple in form and easy to understand in language, shuochang requires little backdrops, lighting, or sound effects, but only a handful of props or musical instruments. Photo: FILE

After the reform and opening up, the rapid development of the commodity economy and the real improvements in people’s lives have promoted the resurgence of town or shijing literature, giving rise to a series of well-received novels in the genre. Town literature focuses on the trivial and worldly lives of ordinary people, who are usually local working residents of urban areas, attentive to their daily necessities, shelter and food as well as marriages and families.

In the 1980s, Deng Youmei’s Nawu and Snuff-Bottles, Wang Zengqi’s Three Friends in Winter (Sui Han San You) and The Connoisseur, Feng Jicai’s The Magic Braid and The Three-Inch Golden Lotus: A Novel on Foot Binding, and Lu Wenfu’s The Gourmet dug into the traditional cultural temperaments of townships and delineated the resilient, optimistic and artistic life attitude of the common people, revealing the authors’ faith in the power of love and warmth amid hardship and difficulties.

These works transcended traditional town literature, endowing its aesthetics with unprecedented elegance and worldliness.


Drawing on literati culture
In the wake of China’s reform and opening up, writers have managed to make an aesthetic correlation between two distinct cultural forms, namely the demotic life of townsfolk and the literati culture, spawning a creative artistic imagination. This is an important reason for why town literature can produce a defamiliarization effect and gain traction in the new era.

Literati culture (wenren wenhua) encompasses the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual pursuits of Chinese literati who often possessed a double identity as scholars and officials in ancient times. It denotes a variety of arts such as music, the game of go, calligraphy, painting, and poetry and lyrical essays as well as the connoisseurship of various categories of material objects, including jade, porcelain, vessels, ink stones or seals. Chinese literati’s love for these items clearly did not originate from their practical value, but more of a spiritual pursuit transcending utilitarianism.

Most Chinese literati were deeply concerned with the fate of the nation, upholding the Confucian thought of “cultivating the moral self and safeguarding peace under Heaven,” thus they had high requirements for their own moral cultivation and social responsibility.

In contrast, township culture is closely related to the development of the commodity economy, which has a strong utilitarian and practical value orientation. In some traditional literary works, townsfolk are portrayed as sophisticated, mercenary, and unrighteous, and their behavior is stigmatized as philistine.

For example, in the story “Mother Meng Relocated Three Times,” Mother Meng moves away from the marketplace to stop Mencius from imitating shopkeepers; in Tang poet Bai Juyi’s “Song of Pi-pa the Tartarian Lute,” it is written that “When no longer young, she became the wife of a trader. /Traders valued wealth but did not care about departing.” All reveal the negative perception of merchants in ancient Chinese society.

However, the elegant cultural taste of traditional literati permeates town literature in the new era in both the description of daily life and in spiritual and cultural reflection. Townsfolk no longer set their eyes solely on the trivial matters of daily necessities and personal gains, but also on elegance in craftsmanship, with a unique sentiment and view toward less essential items.

In Snuff-Bottles, Wu Shibao, a member of the fallen Eight Banners noble families, sits cross-legged and concentrated on painting snuff-bottles, even though his family has lost its glory and gone broke and he is struggling to live running a humble shop. In Three Friends in Winter, the protagonists Wang Shouwu, Tao Huchen and Jin Yipu are not vulgar nobodies. Though Jin Yipu sometimes cannot make ends meet in life, he remains upbeat. He raises daffodils in winter, plants lotus seeds in summer and takes a boat to watch cricket fights in autumn. In The Connoisseur, the tea peddler Ye San’s artistic taste wins a famed painter’s heart and becomes the painter’s most trusted connoisseur.

The common people in new-era town literature have grown beyond the old images of self-concerned townsfolk in their life pursuits and in the spiritual realm. In critical times, they show integrity and love for the nation regardless of personal interests. In Snuff-Bottles, inheritor Nie Xiaoxuan would rather have his hand cut off than to make snuff-bottles for the Japanese. In The Magic Braid, the protagonist Sha’er does not rely on his inherited skills to make a living when the Chinese nation is in distress, but shows a chivalrous spirit and a national righteousness, with little concern for his personal safety.

At the same time, these works also differ greatly from the traditional township writing in their details of daily life and their storylines. The description of traditional Chinese art and implements, such as painting and calligraphy, antiques, cultural relics and folk customs, have become an important part of town literature in the new era, enhancing the artistic taste, intellectual and aesthetic value of the work.


Innovation in writing
While traditional town literature focuses on the thoughts and culture of the common people, it somewhat leads to the closed and rigid structure of the township culture, overlooking the possibility of its growth and self-innovation. In the new era, writers keenly noticed the constraints of such writing, so they turned to ordinary life and went beyond its vision, to express the openness of township culture. That is, through interacting with other cultural forms, township culture has the potential to absorb the essence of other heterogeneous cultures, so as to depart from township culture’s vulgar and utilitarian stereotype, expand its cultural capacity, and enhance its vitality.

Beijing-style writer Deng Youmei discovered that the aristocratic culture of the Qing Dynasty had fallen amid the historical changes and it had infiltrated and impacted the township culture in Beijing. In addition to depicting how the fallen aristocrats strived to maintain their artistic lifestyle and elegant taste, he also explored the continuity of the noble spirit in society. The elegance hidden in the town literature stands out and plays an important role in lifting the township culture to a lofty level to some extent.

Bear in mind, such elegance is not merely a décor of the work, but it is well manifested in the portrayal of common people in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace who have now obtained independent personalities and moral standards at the level of the traditional literati.

Due to the complexity and diversity of the subjects in a township, differences in lifestyle, values and aesthetic tastes are evident. Despite how the urban living space is dominated by economic relations, it should not be a surprise that there are some people who go beyond utilitarianism and pursue an artistic lifestyle, forming selfless friendships and spiritual connections. Writers in the new era have precisely observed the positive influence elegant culture has on townsfolk.


Rejection of vulgarity
The origin of town literature can be traced back to shuochang, a genre of popular entertainment consisting mainly of talking and singing born in the Northern Song Dynasty and that primarily served the populace. In order to reach a broader audience, the authors of traditional town literature inevitably have to cater to some vulgar tastes and habits of the populace, thus forming the aesthetic tendency of popularization, even kitsch and vulgarization.

In the new era, town literature broke free from the old-fashioned aesthetic tradition, and on some level reversed the vulgar aesthetics in traditional town literature formed in the commercial environment, and set the genre to pursue classical and refined creation. In the 1980s, the idealist cultural atmosphere liberated authors from commercial considerations to some degree and also from passively and blindly accommodating market demands.

Instead, they devoted themselves to improving the aesthetic level of the public and creating an elegant art world. Writers at that time not only immersed themselves into ordinary life, empathized with the emotions and temperament of the common people, but also took an independent stance and examined them. In this light, town literature is equipped with a “dual cultural vision,” which not only uncovers the value of secular life, but also profoundly reflects on and criticizes township culture, greatly improving the cultural taste and aesthetic value of the genre.

In writing, the new-era writers overcame the common problems in traditional town themed novels such as pure pursuit of novelty, plain characters and language lacking personality, to strike a balance between readability and artistry, between the distinctiveness and the depth of the personality traits, and between plain and classic language, which greatly improved the artistic aesthetics of town literature. For example, the prose structure, depiction of a watertown and fresh language style of Wang Zengqi’s novels are all “painstakingly casual,” implying the author’s hidden intention to break through the limitations of traditional town literature and carry out stylistic innovation.

Town literature in the new era tries to communicate tradition and modernity, thus showing the characteristics of a transitional literature, so its intervention in reality is weakened and its impact on the traditional township value is limited. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, with the advent of a number of contemporary realistic town literature novels such as Life in Trouble and Chicken Feathers, the popularity of elegant township novels gradually faded away. However, its literary and artistic achievements cannot be ignored in the history of contemporary literature, and writing at that time became a solid foundation for later narratives about townships.


Ding Qi is from the Institute of Literature at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.


edited by YANG XUE